There’s a saying that goes: if the product you’re using is free (in this case social media), then you are the product. This could not be more true with the rise of data trails and targeted analytics. Dr. Elisa Oreglia explains that a “digital trail” is essentially like breadcrumbs we leave behind when using our smartphones, our laptops, as well as social media (2016). Beyond just scrolling through apps and explicitly engaging with them, our phones have “a series of censors and [we] have this constant background communication between the phone and cell towers”, but also between the internet and our apps (Pod Academy, 2016, para. 13). So, we’re constantly giving away information about our environment, and ourselves.
While this is initially alarming, given that at first glance, it’s pretty exploitative. I’d argue there are more benefits than costs here. I’m personally not worried about my data trails and I don’t try to minimize my footprint. This is because I’m pretty neutral when it comes to targeted ads and companies using my data to better understand me. I think acknowledging that this is the case is helpful in spotting these attempts to exploit me. On the flip side, it’s sometimes helpful for me when what I’m looking for pops up on my feed!
I also think there are more benefits in this double-edged data sword. Analytics are an extremely valuable tool. It’s not just massive companies that leverage our data trails, smaller creators benefit too! Digital creators and artists can use these data tools to build and develop an audience. They can understand their readers better to serve them better. I’d argue, everyone wins here. As long as there is education around the fact that some will try and exploit this data, there isn’t anything necessarily worrisome about data trails.
Media literacy and data trail knowledge is important now more than ever. Understanding that people will try and mold behaviour or influence our decisions is critical in avoiding the pitfalls of these digital breadcrumbs. However, knowledge is key and will help us access the power of these tools. This will also hopefully lead to the leveling of the digital playing field.
Pod Academy, (2016). “Digital breadcrumbs: The data trail we leave behind us.” http://podacademy.org/podcasts/digital-breadcrumbs-our-data-trail/